State of Mobile Networks: UK (April 2016)

The U.K. mobile industry is entering another year of consolidation, which could see the once crowded market reduced to just three operators. While 3 and O2 prepare to merge, we're witnessing both action and inaction from the country's operators. On the one hand, new network upgrades are boosting speed and pushing technology boundaries, but on the other, the U.K.'s already poor LTE coverage shows only minimal signs of improvement. We partnered with leading consumer advocate Which? to take a closer look at the current state of U.K. mobile networking, drawing on 60 million measurements taken between November and January.

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3 makes big gains in speed

New network upgrades gave 3 a substantial LTE performance boost at the end of 2015, so much that 3's LTE network is challenging EE's LTE-Advanced network in terms of speed. But given 3’s poor 4G coverage, customers spent a good deal of their time on 3G networks, impacting its overall mobile data speeds.

EE beats out its peers in 4G coverage

EE may have a new rival in LTE speed, but it's still leading the pack in coverage. From November to January, its 4G customers were able to connect to an LTE signal 61% of the time. EE was the only operator for which we measured a coverage metric greater than 60% during this testing period.

Overall UK 4G coverage is scarce

Though EE led the pack in 4G coverage, no operator in the U.K. was able to deliver a truly consistent LTE signal. In our most recent State of LTE report, U.K. operators combined had an average 4G coverage of just 53%, a particularly poor showing considering at least 39 countries offered coverage of 60% or greater.

Operators still lean heavily on 3G

With 4G coverage poor, U.K. operators are relying on their 3G networks to pick up the slack. Luckily the U.K. has a well-developed HSPA+ infrastructure with average speeds exceeding the global average.

Report Facts

Report Location United Kingdom
Data Sample Size 60,436,228
User Sample Size 31,525
Sample Period Nov 1st 2015 - Jan 31st 2016

Overall Network Comparison

Download Speed: 4GDownload Speed: 3GDownload Speed: OverallLatency: 4GLatency: 3GCoverage: 4G

3

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EE

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O2

Vodafone

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Network Coverage Comparison

Coverage: 4G

This metric shows the proportion of time LTE subscribers on each network have 4G (LTE) coverage available to them.

Network Speed Comparison

Download Speed: 4G

This metric shows the average download speed on each network on 4G (LTE) connections.

Download Speed: 3G

This metric shows the average download speed on each network on 3G connections.

Download Speed: Overall

This metric shows the average download speed experienced by a user across all of an operator's networks. Overall speed doesn't just factor in 3G and LTE speeds, but also the availability of each network technology. Operators with lower LTE coverage tend to have lower overall speeds because their customers spend much more time connected to slower 3G networks.

Network Latency Comparison

Latency: 4G

This metric shows the average latency on each network on 4G (LTE) connections. Latency, measured in milliseconds, is the delay data experiences as it travels between points in the network. A lower score in this metric is a sign of a more responsive network.

Latency: 3G

This metric shows the average latency on each network on 3G connections. Latency, measured in milliseconds, is the delay data experiences as it travels between points in the network. A lower score in this metric is a sign of a more responsive network.

Analysis

While some countries are struggling to catch up with the rest of the world in 4G speed, the U.K. has an entirely different problem. U.K. LTE networks keep getting faster, but LTE coverage just isn't advancing at the same pace. While regulators and operators are already looking ahead to the 5G data networks of the future, mobile consumers today are still spending nearly half their time connected to 3G networks.

We teamed up with consumer champion Which? to publish the first installment of our semi-annual State of Mobile Networks report for the U.K. In it we examine the mobile data performance of the country's four nationwide operators: 3, EE, O2 and Vodafone. First, let's take a look at speed.

3's big LTE punch

The biggest surprise in our data was the progress 3 has made in boosting the capacity of its LTE networks. Last autumn, 3 announced a series of LTE upgrades. It launched LTE in a new band (800 MHz) to support its new voice-over-LTE service, and it plowed more spectrum onto its original 4G network. The result was a doubling of LTE capacity, and the effects were quite dramatic. In our September Global LTE report, we measured 3's 4G download average at 12 Mbps. But between November and January, our data shows a jump in speed to 18.7 Mbps.

For the same time period, our tests clocked EE's LTE download speeds at 17.8 Mbps, which was close enough to 3's average 4G speed to put both operators in a statistical tie. EE’s greater LTE coverage, however, meant that its customers spent far more time connected to 4G than 3’s customers, who were forced to contend with 3G or lesser links more than half the time. When OpenSignal calculated the download speed experienced by customers across all of an operator’s networks between November and January, EE came out ahead with an average of 11.1 Mbps, compared to 3’s average of 9.1 Mbps.

Still, 3’s LTE improvement is notable. On paper at least, EE should have a much faster network than 3. EE has upgraded portions of its 4G network with new spectrum and new LTE-Advanced technologies, which theoretically can support more than double the speed of 3's network. That said, there are plenty of explanations why 3 is now rivaling its larger competitor. EE's upgraded network — which it calls 4G+ — is only available in London and a few other major U.K. cities, meaning many of EE's 4G subscribers are still accessing its older, more modest network. Finally, EE has triple the number of customers as 3, which means it has many more devices competing for its 4G capacity. Whatever the specific reason, the country's biggest operator now seems to be in a race with its smallest operator to provide the most souped-up 4G connection — with EE holding the advantage due to its superior coverage. In the same timeframe, O2 and Vodafone were locked in a similar battle for the title of third fastest operator, both delivering average LTE download speeds of about 12 Mbps.

Hunting for a 4G signal

3's new network rollout may have provided a big boost in 4G speed, but we aren’t seeing those upgrades produce a substantial boost in 3’s coverage. Our three months of measurements showed 3 with the worst LTE time coverage in the U.K. at 40%. Our time coverage metric (*) tracks the proportion of time OpenSignal users spend connected to a particular network, so in 3's case its 4G customers saw an LTE signal 40% of the time. That's quite low, but you couldn't accuse any of the U.K.'s operators of having particularly good coverage. EE turned in the best performance for this report with 61% time coverage, while Vodafone and O2 had scores of 57% and 56% respectively.

Internationally the U.K. ranks near the bottom of the list of 4G countries in terms of coverage. It shares that notoriety with several other Western European countries, including France, Ireland, Germany and Italy, all of whom have been fairly slow to extend the reach of their 4G networks. Meanwhile in Northern Europe, LTE time coverage is already surpassing 70%, and in a few European countries like the Netherlands and Hungary, LTE connections are nearly as easy to find as 3G connections.

3G to the rescue

With LTE coverage so poor, U.K. mobile subscribers are spending a lot of time on 3G networks. Fortunately most U.K. operators have quality HSPA+ networks to lean on. Our data showed that 3, EE and Vodafone all delivered 3G download speeds faster than the global average of 3.5 Mbps. That well-developed 3G infrastructure might be one of the explanations for why the U.K. has been slow to invest in 4G coverage. At the beginning of the millennium, the U.K. mobile industry spent billions of pounds on 3G licenses and network rollouts, yet the expected deluge in mobile data use didn't come until nearly a decade later. Operators may be wary about repeating such massive investments in the 4G era, especially if they can still offer a decent 3G service.

For this report, we also took a close look at latency, which essentially measures the time it takes data to make a round trip through the network. Low latencies mean faster reaction times right after you click on a link and less delay in real-time communications apps. Latency is key to voice over LTE, with which all U.K. operators are currently experimenting. In the three months tested, we measured the lowest LTE latency on 3 and EE's 4G networks. 3 is the only operator with a commercial VoLTE service in the U.K. while EE is now conducting nationwide VoLTE trials.

By the time our second U.K. State of Mobile Networks report comes out this summer, a whole lot may have changed. 3 and O2 may become a single, unified operator in six months, which could give a boost to their combined network's speed and coverage. EE and Vodafone could expand LTE-Advanced beyond their current limited footprints, which — coupled with a new wave of LTE-Advanced capable smartphones in the market — could boost their LTE speeds considerably. The status quo can change very quickly in the world of 4G — just ask 3.

(*) Editor’s note: In June of 2016, OpenSignal changed the name its time coverage metric to network availability. Availability measures the same thing as time coverage — the proportion of time users remain connected to a particular network — but we felt that availability was a better reflection of the metric’s definition. For more details see our methodology page.

Methodology Notes

OpenSignal data is collected from regular consumer smartphones and recorded under conditions of normal usage. As opposed to drive-test data, which simulates the typical user experience by using the same devices to measure network performance in a small number of locations, we take our measurements from millions of smartphones owned by normal people who have downloaded the OpenSignal app.

Those measurements are taken wherever users happen to be, whether indoors or out, in a city or in the countryside, representing performance the way users experience it. For more information on how we collect and analyze our data see our methodology page.

For this particular report, 60,436,228 datapoints were collected from 31,525 users during the period: Nov 1st 2015 - Jan 31st 2016

All data has been collected from users of the OpenSignal mobile app for Android or iOS.

For every metric we've calculated the statistical confidence interval and plotted this on all of the graphs. When confidence intervals overlap for a certain metric we can't actually be sure which of the overlapping operators has the best performance.

For this reason some metrics have multiple operator winners when we've judged that the data is too close to call a victory.

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